The Good Dinosaur is Pixar's most disappointing film.
Note that it's not the "worst" — it's technically accomplished, visually stunning, and certainly better than Cars 2, at the very least.
But even though Pixar and the prehistoric era should have been a natural fit, The Good Dinosaur is hollow on a storytelling level, mostly cobbled together from other, better sources. It feels like a patchworked compilation of a dozen screenplay drafts (complete with five people credited for coming up with the film's "story" — the outline that eventually becomes a full script).
This reflects the film's troubled production process, during which its original director, Bob Peterson, was removed in 2013 and replaced with current director Peter Sohn. While Pixar has survived such directorial shake-ups before (most notably on the sublime Ratatouille), it's evident from the earliest that nobody ever quite knew what The Good Dinosaur was supposed to be.
First, though, a word on the film's visuals.
The Good Dinosaur might be the most beautiful film Pixar has ever made
If there's a reason to give The Good Dinosaur a mild recommendation (and I give it the very mildest of recommendations), it's the film's visual excellence. You'll see plenty of reviews that highlight the photorealism of the movie's scenic backgrounds (taken from real US Geological Survey data of the American West!). However, while they're certainly far more naturalistic than anything Pixar has done before, saying they're photorealistic is not quite accurate. No, these are the grand vistas of the West as we might expect them to look, with every single beam of sunlight carefully positioned and every shrub artfully placed. The whole thing has the feel of a landscape painter tweaking nature just so.
These backdrops mesh well with the film's more stylized and cartoon-y main characters, beings that were very obviously generated by a computer. Something about the bright green main dinosaur Arlo moving across such precisely maintained landscapes just works, and that's to say nothing of the film's other neat visual flourishes, like a shot of pteranodon wings cutting through clouds like shark fins cresting above the sea.
Unfortunately, these sumptuous images don't entirely carry through to the story's visual logic. The center of The Good Dinosaur's plot involves Arlo being swept far from home after an accident. He'll have to embark on a long journey back, a trip that will comprise the bulk of the film's running time. So far, so good.
But Sohn and company never give us any real sense of Arlo's trek. It's fine if we don't know how exactly how far he is from home, but it's a problem if we can't get any real sense of how far he's traveled. That's the sort of thing that can easily be conveyed visually — via geography, or even simple landmarks. Yet, by the time Arlo gets within spitting distance of home, it's hard to figure out how much ground he's covered — or if he arrives when he does simply because it's time for the movie to end.
However, this is a minor quibble in the grand scheme of the film. Far more egregious is the fact that The Good Dinosaur ripped off many, many other movies in hopes of coming up with a coherent story. Here are a handful.
1) The Lion King
Early in the movie, Arlo's father dies — in circumstances that are staged in almost completely identical fashion to Mufasa's death in The Lion King. (Just substitute a torrent of water for a herd of wildebeest.)
What's remarkable is how little bearing this has on the story that follows. Arlo getting swept away is part of a second, completely separate water-related accident, and his sorrow over his dead father seems to affect him only when the story needs it to. If Arlo were constantly having to confront giant floods of rushing water on his voyage home, there might have been a thematic payoff, but he mostly doesn't have to deal with dangerous waters until the very end. The Good Dinosaur briefly suggests that Arlo's family's farm could suffer thanks to both Arlo and his dad being gone, but it's brought up only occasionally.
Arlo's father dies for one reason only: to make you sad. That'd be fine if his death tied into the story in a bigger way, as Mufasa's does in The Lion King. But since it doesn't, it just feels manipulative.
2) The Flintstones
This one's a bit of a cheat. The Good Dinosaur and The Flintstones don't really have similar stories, but I bring up the latter because it's the best-known example of a prominent storytelling trope: cavemen and dinosaurs living on Earth at the same time.
The Good Dinosaur opens with a history-altering scene in which the meteor that's supposed to cause the mass extinction of the dinosaurs hurtles past Earth instead of hitting it — an intriguing idea, and one the film proceeds to utterly waste. The dinosaurs invent agriculture, sort of, but they don't seem to have much else in the way of technology. Also, a few of them are cowboys for some reason.
At the same time, mammals have continued to evolve right alongside dinosaurs, resulting in a variety of creatures that look very much like, say, bison, foxes, and human beings (the latter seem only semi-intelligent and are largely modeled on wild dogs). However, the sole reason for this elaborate setup is that the film wants Arlo to have a little human boy named Spot as his reluctant companion and eventual pet. Spot is undoubtedly cute, but he's basically a dog, as he doesn't speak and communicates in howls. Y'know, kinda like Dino from The Flintstones.
3) Every Pixar movie ever
Pixar returns to the same basic themes and story ideas over and over again. The studio is so consistent in this practice that we made a whole chart about it:
Pixar is able to make this work because its sense of classical storytelling is so adroit that it can make Toy Story and Inside Out feel like enormously different movies, even though their underlying structures are very similar. Above all else, the studio understands how to ground its plots in characters' goals, motivations, and ideals.
The problem is how readily this approach falls apart when the characters are comparatively weak. On that chart above, the first three categories combine to form one sentence: A pair of mismatched partners with serious philosophical differences go on a wacky journey. The weaker Pixar films almost always omit that second item — the philosophical differences (though, admittedly, plenty of strong films like Wall-E do too).
The Good Dinosaur follows the bare outline of this story — mismatched partners setting out on a journey — but Arlo and Spot don't really have any major differences between them. They've both lost parents. Arlo is more afraid of things than Spot is, but because Spot can't talk, they don't really have any arguments or discussions about this fact, and Spot isn't constantly leading Arlo into danger or otherwise upsetting him.
Whereas the conflict in Toy Story is driven by Woody's awareness of being a toy versus Buzz Lightyear's denial, and the conflict in Inside Out is driven by Joy and Sadness literally living up to their oppositional names, The Good Dinosaur's Arlo and Spot iron out whatever differences they have remarkably quickly, which leads to boring travel.
4) Every Pixar film ever, part two
On a more granular level, The Good Dinosaur is filled with characters who feel like quick riffs on characters from other, better Pixar movies.
For example, a trio of cattle-herding carnivorous dinosaurs are basically new versions of the vegetarian sharks from Finding Nemo, right down to the way Arlo and Spot meet them. Meanwhile, those swooping, flying pteranodons function as a rough cross between the three-eyed aliens of the Toy Story franchise (thanks to a weird religious code) and the shredder sea turtles of Nemo, until The Good Dinosaur realizes it doesn't have any villains and shoehorns them into that role.
Even the film's single most entertaining scene, involving an incredibly timid dinosaur with a small forest of critters living on his horns, is one you've seen Pixar knock out of the park in its other movies. There's a much better version of this basic one-off encounter in Brave, for instance.
5) E.T. and/or The Jungle Book
The "boy and his dog" movie is a time-honored tradition in American film, one that's often swapped species, so that, say, the "dog" becomes a friendly alien who loves Reese's Pieces.
In and of itself, The Good Dinosaur could have been a great "boy and his dog" story, where the "boy" was a dinosaur and the "dog" an actual little boy. The movie contains a few hints of this, particularly when Arlo and Spot are just enjoying each other's company. (There's a beautiful, evocative shot of Arlo tossing Spot into the sky, with Spot breaking through the cloud cover and seeing the bright world above.)
But the film doesn't know when to simply leave this idea alone. In the third act, the suggestion that Spot should perhaps be somewhere else abruptly materializes, when more humans enter the picture from out of absolutely nowhere. The situation is akin to Mowgli's in The Jungle Book, or the concluding scene in E.T.
But in both of those other films, there was always the implicit suggestion that Mowgli and E.T. were strangers in a strange land — the latter a literal alien. Because The Good Dinosaur takes place in an invented alternate timeline, we have literally no idea how many humans there are. Maybe Spot's the last one! Thus, the idea that he's gone missing from somewhere else falls flat.
Maybe The Good Dinosaur was never going to work. Maybe its tortured production process should have indicated that it never had a strong enough core. But the film's biggest sin is that it never moves past its influences to become its own thing — it's trapped in a kind of netherworld, where it feels like a cover version of other, better movies.
The Good Dinosaur is playing throughout the country.
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